Happy weekend, all! It’s Preview Friday, and I’ve got your sneak peek at the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery, THE TRAP! This upcoming release is due out at the end of this month, but you can pre-order your copy AND read the first five chapters here today. Plus claim some free Audible codes and check out an Authors XP contest. Have a wonderful weekend! –Lorhainne
What was that sound?
The ringing came from a distance as Billy Jo stared at the arrogant redhead. He seemed to look right through her…
When she jolted awake, she realized it was her phone ringing from somewhere in the apartment.
Mark Friessen had been in her dreams.
She tossed back the covers, and her bare feet hit the icy floor in the pitch black. She flicked on her bedside light and hurried out of the bedroom. Her cell phone was on the island in the kitchen, and the screen was lit up when she landed on it.
“Hello?” she said, then cleared her throat, still feeling the cobwebs of sleep and her anger at how Mark had looked at her. The red digital clock on the stove read 1:10 a.m.
“Ms. McCabe, this is the program director from DCFS. I’m filling in for Grant. I apologize for calling at this late hour, but we have an emergency.”
She didn’t recognize the voice. What had he said his name was?
“I’m sorry, who is this?” she said, shivering as she strode back to her bedroom, where Harley was curled up asleep on the bed, half under the covers she’d tossed back. He didn’t stir.
“Lane Fuller,” the man said. “Again, I apologize for the late hour, but a report has come in about a child in trouble. I need you to immediately pick up the child and arrange for emergency placement.”
Her hand went to her head, and she brushed back her hair, which she knew was sticking up everywhere. She grabbed her ratty plush gray housecoat and shrugged one arm in as she hurried back into the kitchen, then flicked on the bright overhead light. She blinked, her heart thudding with the familiar warning that came at her every time she woke in the night.
“What happened?” she said. She spotted her bag and juggled the phone between her shoulder and her ear as she pulled out the pen and notebook she always kept tucked inside. She instinctively rolled her shoulders, feeling the chill of the night.
“Not sure on the details. All I know is we’re to pick up the kid. The name here is…” The sound he made was cold and unfeeling, and she couldn’t shake the suspicion that he possessed the familiar trait of too many in this business. She’d become accustomed to the desensitization, just something it seemed came with this job. Otherwise, it could eat people up. She, though, still saw the eyes of all the children, the hope that dimmed there, every night before she slept.
Maybe that was why she felt haunted now.
“Ah, here it is,” he said. “Whitney Chandler, and here’s the address.” He rattled it off, and she scribbled it down, wondering whether this job ever got easier.
“And how old is the child? Did something happen? The parents…?”
“I told you this is all I have. It’s just an emergency placement. Go get her, find a bed for her tonight, and you can iron out all the details in the morning,” he said. Then he hung up, and Billy Jo just stared at the disconnected phone, glancing at the time again and wondering why it seemed emergencies happened only in the middle of the night.
She hated this. Worse, she hadn’t even met the child but could already feel her anguish.
She pulled on thick socks and opted for sweats and a sweatshirt, then ran a brush over her hair, hearing the rain pattering on the roof. She reached for her heavy warm raincoat and shoved her feet into her lined rainboots, then quickly searched up the address. It was a part of the island that she knew was rural and dark.
Great, just perfect for a late-night visit!
“Seriously, why does the bad kind of shit have to happen after dark?” she muttered, pissed off. There was something about the night that always had her on edge.
Billy Jo reached for her phone, seeing Mark’s name in her contacts, and could feel the unease. It was just a dream, she reminded herself as she thumbed past his name. She opened Pam’s contact and dialed, then put it on speaker and listened to it ring once, twice. Then it went to voicemail.
“Ah, dammit… Pam, it’s Billy Jo. I need you to get up. I got a call from some guy filling in for Grant, and I’m doing an emergency placement. There’s a kid in trouble. Not sure of any of the details, but I need you to find me a bed for her tonight…” She heard the beep and knew she’d just been cut off.
She reached for her bag and then opened the drawer in the kitchen island to pull out a flashlight to tuck into it. As she strode to the door, the phone to her ear, dialing Pam again, she held the notebook open to the address.
At least this time she answered.
“This is Billy Jo. I just left you a message. Sorry to call in the middle of the night.” She pulled open the door and flicked on the outside light. The rain was heavy, pounding down, making everything impossible—seeing, driving, just being out in it. “I just got a call from the program supervisor. I think he said his name was Lane. I have to pick up a kid in trouble.”
She rattled off the address and then tucked the notebook in her coat pocket as she stood in the open doorway, her hood up. Then she stepped out and pulled the door closed, the rain pelting down on her. “Look, I’m driving out there now, so find me a bed if you can. Call me back and let me know where to take her.”
The way Pam sighed on the other end summed up exactly what she was feeling. “I’ll see what I can find. Why is it that it seems these calls happen only in the middle of the night?”
Hadn’t she just thought the same thing? She didn’t answer, remembering her nights in foster care, lying there in the dark. That was when everything bad could and would happen.
“Oh, and Pam, whatever place you find, try to make sure I won’t have to worry that I’m pulling this kid from one bad situation and sticking her in another.”
“I’ll do my best,” was all she said.
Billy Jo hung up and tucked the phone in her bag, then made her way down the steps, the rain making everything difficult. She splashed through the puddles to her new Nissan and yanked open the door, then tossed her bag in across to the passenger side and climbed in.
She should have brought a towel, as the water dripped off her. She stared at the outside light and started her car, letting it warm for a second before flicking on the heat and pulling down the darkened driveway to the road.
The wipers were on high, whirring back and forth so fast as she gripped the steering wheel, trying to see, but the rain came down so hard that they couldn’t clear it fast enough. Worse, the fog had settled in, and she white-knuckled the steering wheel.
“Damn, I hate nights like this,” she said as she struggled to see, searching for the faded white lines on the road as she rounded a bend. The road was treelined on both sides now, and she slowed as the water splashed under her wheels. She turned right and had to flick on her high-beams, seeing darkened driveways, some with numbers, some without.
“114, where are you?” she said over and over, slowing to a crawl, seeing trees and driveways, only two with numbers by the road. “Sometimes I really hate this island.”
She slammed on the brakes when she spotted a small sign with an address in white letters, realizing she’d gone too far. She pulled out her notebook and flipped to the page with the address, remembering the directions she’d pulled up, feeling uneasy because of the night and the quiet.
With her foot on the brake, the car idling, she reached for her phone in her bag and saw that it had only one bar of battery left. How had she managed not to charge it when it had been plugged in and supposedly charging in the kitchen? Or had it?
“Stupid, stupid, Billy Jo.” She made a rude noise and tapped the phone to her forehead. Her frustration only added to the unease in her stomach, that sick feeling she didn’t think was ever far away. “Come on, keep it together,” she muttered as she rummaged through her purse for her charger, which wasn’t there. “Shit! Idiot!”
She slapped the steering wheel, then forced herself to pull in a breath and put her car in reverse. She flicked on the rear wipers and backed up until she stopped at a rutted treelined driveway she was positive had to belong to the house she was looking for. She flicked off her high-beams when the fog had her seeing a sea of white—and then she saw it, a darkened house with what looked to be an older pickup parked out front.
She squeezed the steering wheel with both hands and pulled up beside the truck, then took in the house, a small two-story. She thought she saw a light on upstairs. At the same time, she’d expected someone to be there already.
The police? That would be Mark, who she again reminded herself was both arrogant and unhealthy for her wellbeing. The dream had been a reminder that she was depending on him in ways that would end up breaking her.
She turned off her car and picked up her phone, but when she went to call Pam again, the phone flashed from one bar to no service. She lifted it and moved it until she saw the bar again, then pulled up Mark’s number and wrote a quick text: Got a call to pick up a kid in trouble. Wondering if you received anything? Here now, but no one else is…
Her thumb hovered over the send button. She wanted to kick herself for doing exactly what she shouldn’t be. “Nope, nope, not happening,” she said as she deleted the message. The battery was now in the red.
“This is just great, Billy Jo,” she said under her breath. “Pam can’t even call you now to let you know where to take the kid, and where are you but in between crazytown and creepyville?”
She opened her door and gave it a shove, then reached for the flashlight in her purse. She stepped out right into a puddle, the rain still pouring down. She closed the door and flicked on the flashlight, her breath fogging as she started past the truck to the three wide steps up to the front door. Solid wood and no doorbell.
Her hand was wet and cold. She fisted it to knock, feeling the hair rise on the back of her neck and that same sick feeling she’d had as a kid, when everything had always gone from bad to worse. It was the strange doors she remembered so vividly: old, worn, dirty, marked up or scraped and patched. Strange doors leading to strange people and houses, and a feeling of desperation and anger that never went away.
Billy Jo forced herself to knock on the wooden door and took another second to see where she was. There was no one around. Rain was the only sound she heard as she pictured her uncharged cell phone in the car. Then she knocked again, and this time she knew someone was on the other side of the door. It was just a feeling.
“Hello? Can you open the door, please? My name is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. We got a call about…”
She heard the click of the door being unlocked, then the squeak as it opened. She was suddenly aware of a faint light on the other side—then a clang of metal. She focused everything on that sound of a gun being cocked, a sound she knew too well. She stared in horror, seeing everything and nothing as she reminded herself to breathe.
Someone with a raspy voice said, “Well, then I guess you’d better come in.”
At the icy chill that ricocheted straight down through her, she realized her mistake. She was there alone, with no backup, no help. As she stared at the steel of the gun and the white hand holding it, she knew that whatever this was, she was in over her head.
“Mark, Pam Hunt is on the line for you.” Gail gestured toward him with the phone. Her bulky purse was already packed, resting on her desk, one of the signs he knew well that she was getting ready to leave and the chief was likely two steps from opening the door. Gail stood behind the desk and rested the black office phone back in the cradle. Her gaze was pointed in that motherly way of hers.
Mark walked back to his desk, holding his steaming coffee, staring at the office door, still expecting the chief any second. “Pam Hunt… Should I know who that is?” He glanced to the clock, coming up on ten. Yay. This would be a really long day with the chief. The dread was there, as they had been circling each other constantly like dogs.
“Pam, who runs the DCFS office here. Come on, Mark, you should know her. Doesn’t she work with your girlfriend?”
He wasn’t sure what expression was on his face. Gail was already looking away, pulling a compact from her bag and sliding some lipstick over her lips. “Billy Jo is not my girlfriend,” he said. “We’re friends. That’s it. Why do I have to keep telling everyone?”
There it was, the flash of humor in her light blue eyes. She pressed her lips together, giving him that odd smile of hers as she tossed her lipstick and compact back in her bag. She again flicked him that motherly look. “Lighten up, Mark. Just having fun at your expense.”
He only shook his head and reached for the phone. Why would Pam be calling him? As he held the receiver, he watched the blinking light of the line. “She asked for me by name?”
“Yes, Mark, she asked for you. That’s why she’s waiting there on hold and why I said she’s on the phone for you. So why don’t you pick up and ask her nicely what you can help her with? You know, be the good cop you’re supposed to be—helpful, community minded…” Her tone dripped with sarcasm.
He glanced to Carmen’s empty desk. He hadn’t seen her this morning, which was unusual. He pressed the button on the office phone and picked it up, unsure whether he’d ever had a conversation with Pam. “Detective Friessen,” he said, knowing he was keeping it cool.
“Hi, Detective, this is Pam Hunt. I don’t know if you remember me. I work with Billy Jo, and I’m wondering if maybe you’ve heard from her… Maybe last night or this morning?”
He wasn’t sure what he was picking up on in her voice, in her tone. There was an edge to it. He thought about the last time he’d seen Billy Jo, walking out of the post office how many days earlier. She had ducked her head and he’d kept walking. Evidently, they were back to that again.
“Not recently. Why, what’s up?” He took a swallow of his coffee, watching Gail tuck files from the cabinet behind her into her bag. Case files?
“Well, I haven’t seen her this morning. She was supposed to pick up a girl last night, a late-night call, but this morning I got a call from the Pearsons, the placement home, and they said they waited up all night and no one showed up. And she’s not answering her cell phone.”
Gail had her keys in hand and had lifted her bag over her shoulder. He wanted to know what files she was taking, of course. Maybe the chief had asked her to bring them home?
“I’m sure there’s an explanation,” he said. “A late-night call… Maybe she went back to bed. Maybe there wasn’t an issue after all. I’ll try her cell phone, but it’s likely she’s sleeping.”
“Look, I’ve called her cell phone four times,” Pam said. “If she was answering, I wouldn’t be calling you now, would I? This isn’t like her. She’s had late-night calls before, but she’s still always first here. She said she’d been told to pick up a girl. She’d have left me a message if something had changed.”
He pulled in a breath, knowing he was going to have to drive over to her place. He’d have to talk to her. He could already imagine the awkwardness that lingered between them now because he knew her better than he ever had any girl before. Sharing, talking… She knew too many of the kinds of secrets he didn’t share with anyone.
“I’ll call her and then drive over to her place,” he said. “She’ll likely be pissed because I woke her up.”
He heard the sigh on the other end of the phone. “Well, tell her to call me, because I have to call the Pearsons back on whether to expect the girl she was supposed to drop off. They aren’t happy. No, scratch that. They’re furious, actually, and are on my ass, ready to take a chunk out, so to speak. You know what I mean? It’s hard enough to find people ready and willing to take a kid in on a moment’s notice…”
He didn’t miss the sharpness in her tone. He lifted his gaze to the ceiling, wondering how her worry had suddenly turned into a rant. “I hear what you’re saying, Pam, but I’m sure it’s—”
“What? That she forgot to call, or was it something else?” She cut him off as if she were scolding him.
He was well aware that forgetting to call back was something Billy Jo didn’t do. Before he could add anything, Pam continued.
“You just let her know that Jill Pearson waited up all night after I called and told her a girl was being dropped off. She’s tired and angry. Billy Jo can call her back and explain and smooth it over with her, because I won’t.”
It wasn’t lost on him how quickly her worry had changed to annoyance. “I will let her know. Anything else?”
There was silence for a second. “I think that’s all—other than to let her know that when she doesn’t show up in the morning, I’m the one who has to field questions and calls with no answers to give, and I don’t appreciate it.”
He only nodded, figuring Pam could go on and on. “Duly noted, Pam. I’m sure Billy Jo didn’t go out of her way to make things difficult for you. How about I just go over to hers and let her know she needs to talk to you, and then the two of you can work this out?”
He could feel Gail watching him, but he didn’t look over to her. There was silence on the other end. “Anything else I can do for you, Pam?” he finally said, keeping his tone professional, wondering for only a second what this was between the two women. The last thing he wanted was to step into it.
“I think that’s all. Just…”
“Okay, Pam. The quicker I get out to Billy Jo’s and get you two back in touch with each other, the quicker she can handle whatever needs to be handled,” he said, then hung up before she could add one more thing.
“What’s going on? Problem?” was all Gail said. Did she have any idea that Pam could go on and on?
Just then, the front door opened and the chief walked in. Mark yanked open his drawer and pulled out the keys for his Jeep, then glanced down at the dog he still hadn’t named, who was curled up on the dog bed Gail had picked up.
“Billy Jo hasn’t checked in at the office this morning. The short of it, from what Pam said, is that she had a late-night call to pick up a girl who was supposed to be taken to some foster place for the night, but she didn’t show, so I’m heading over to her place. I’ll knock on her door. She’s probably asleep. Maybe it wasn’t the situation she expected, and if she was up most of the night, it’s likely she and Pam got their wires crossed. Come on, dog,” he called out.
From across the room, the chief was staring at him with that hard, unsmiling gaze, those icy blue eyes that he knew carried a world of secrets, the kinds he didn’t want to get too close to. He just waited, feeling as if something was coming. The dog nudged his side, and he found himself looking back over to Gail, who was only nodding as she slid her hand over the strap of her bag across her shoulder.
“Well, you’d better get going,” was all she said.
The chief didn’t pull his gaze from him, but he did step back and drawl, “When you’re back from your errand, Mark, I need you here, manning the phones.” He was a big man, and for a moment he could feel the tension that would likely always be there.
“Tolly, you have your own work to do and a number of messages on your desk,” Gail said, gesturing.
The chief dragged his gaze over to her, then stepped back again, and this time Mark walked past him and pulled open the door. The dog trotted out ahead of him. When he glanced back to Gail and the chief, it seemed something else was going on there. Based on the tension, he definitely didn’t want to know what that was about.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said, then pulled the door closed behind him and started over to his Jeep.
He didn’t know why, but it seemed this stalemate with the chief was going in only one direction, from bad to worse.
Billy Jo’s car wasn’t at her place.
Mark rolled the windows down in the Jeep. “Stay,” was all he said to the dog, who was sitting in the passenger side, before he closed the door and took in her apartment above the garage. The big house the Lancasters owned and lived in sat in the distance, with trees and grass around it. Everything looked quiet.
He pulled out his phone and dialed Billy Jo’s number, wondering if maybe he’d just missed her. Likely, he was on a wild goose chase, but at least it had been enough to get him out of the office and away from the chief.
He held the phone to his ear, and it immediately went to voicemail: “This is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. If this is an emergency, call the office. Otherwise, leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
“Hey, I’m outside your place,” he said. “Can you call me back as soon as you get this? Pam called, looking for you, so here I am, doing my due diligence, checking up on you. I’m figuring you’re likely already at the office and have sorted out this mess with Pam. But call me back and let me know so I can take this off my plate.”
He hung up, figuring she’d either call back or ignore him. When had things become so awkward?
Then he spotted someone walking his way, waving at him. It was Lesley, the owner of the place, a little heavyset, in yoga pants and a tank.
“Yoo-hoo, hey there!” she called out in a happy singsong. He could hear the smile on her face before he could see it as she hurried over to him. “Detective, isn’t it?”
They’d met a few times, and from the vibes she threw off, he was positive she had no boundaries.
“Yes, Mark Friessen,” he said.
“That’s right, the young detective friend of Billy Jo’s. I saw you pull in and was wondering who was coming up here. Billy Jo isn’t in. Is she expecting you? That girl is an early bird who gets the worm. Lorne said he heard her pull out last night during that downpour in the wee hours, I think. I was planning on bringing some muffins down, and I looked out as I was making coffee and saw she was already gone. That girl works so hard, a really dedicated type. We like her.”
Right. Another thing about Lesley was that she could go on and on, too.
“You said she pulled out last night,” he said. “What time did she come back?”
The woman was smiling brightly, showing crooked lower teeth, but then she frowned, looking up at Billy Jo’s place. “I don’t rightly know. It had to have been early because, as I said, I looked out when I got up and her car was gone. Is something wrong? Did you two get your wires crossed or something?”
The woman was perceptive, too. The way she asked that last part, he picked up on a hidden meaning he didn’t want to dive too deeply into.
Mark pulled in a breath. “She’s not at the office. That’s why I’m out here. And no, I haven’t talked to her.”
Lesley frowned again, then opened her mouth to say something. She looked up to the apartment, at the closed door, and took in the quiet around them. “Well, did you try calling her?”
“Wouldn’t be here if she’d answered her phone. Goes right to voicemail.”
Lesley waved her hand as if it were nothing. “Oh, that girl always forgets to charge her phone—or is there something I should be worried about? You two are talking, right?” She winked and shot him a flirty smile. What was it with everyone sticking their noses into his business?
Mark glanced to the stairs. “I haven’t talked to her in a while. A call came in this morning to the station, looking for her, so that’s why I’m here, just to make sure everything is okay.”
Lesley wasn’t smiling anymore. “You’re thinking something’s happened to her?”
He only shook his head. “Don’t know. That’s why I’m out here. You mind if I go up and have a look inside?”
She hesitated, and he wondered whether she would say no. “Well, you are a friend. I suppose it’ll be all right. I’ll get the key.” She turned around and called out to the man out front of the big house, pushing a wheelbarrow. “Lorne, bring the key down for the apartment!”
Mark had his foot on the first step and started up as the man yelled back, “What for?”
“Just bring it! The detective here, he needs to get in,” she yelled with the kind of voice that carried.
He took in the big window and the three-legged cat who jumped up to the sill, meowing. He didn’t see anyone as he cupped his hand over his eyes past the glare of the sun and peered through the glass. Nothing, just the cat.
As he stepped back, Lesley was waving at her husband at the foot of the stairs to hurry, he thought. He put his hand on the knob and turned. Of course, the door opened. Apparently, that little talk he’d had with Billy Jo about locking her door had failed to sink in.
“Forget the key,” he said. “She left the door open.” He stepped inside as the cat meowed and hopped across the floor. “Billy Jo, it’s Mark,” he called out, but he heard nothing, already knowing she wasn’t there.
He took in the neat and tidy counter. The cat hopped to the kitchen, where his bowl of water was on its side, empty. His food dish had only a few kibbles left in it.
“You thirsty, hungry? Where’s Billy Jo?” he said to the cat, then leaned down, lifted the bowl, and walked over to the sink to fill it up.
“She left the door unlocked?”
He glanced over his shoulder, seeing Lesley walk in, her husband following. Lorne’s hair was salt and pepper, and he was of medium height, a little on the heavyset side as well.
“What’s going on?” Lorne said, looking around, a frown knitting his brow. “Did something happen to Billy Jo?”
Mark settled the bowl of water on the floor for Harley. “Do you know where Billy Jo keeps the cat food? I think he’s hungry.” He gestured to the cat, who was at his water dish.
Lesley made her way into the small kitchen to open a cupboard and pull out a container. “Are you hungry there, you poor little misfit?” she said, fussing over the cat.
Mark strode out of the small open kitchen and down the hall, stopping in her bedroom to see that her blankets and sheets were tossed back as if she’d just climbed out of bed and left. He didn’t have any idea if she was the kind of girl who made her bed or just got up and went, but by the look of everything in this place, neat and tidy, he thought maybe she did if she wasn’t running out in the middle of the night.
He flicked on the light in the bathroom to reveal the usual toiletries, hairbrush, toothbrush, and towels. Nothing seemed out of place. When he strode back into the living room, Lesley had fed the cat, and Lorne was standing with his arms crossed.
“Nothing seems out of place here,” he said. Maybe she was still at the call she’d gotten the night before. He pulled his phone from his pocket and dialed her office.
“Family Services. This is Pam.”
“Hey, it’s Mark. Has Billy Jo shown up at the office? Because I’m at her house, and she isn’t here.”
“No, she hasn’t. I take it you haven’t found her?”
He shook his head and lifted his gaze to the Lancasters, who were quiet, listening to him. “Nope. I’m at her place now, and it looks like she left in a hurry. Where is it you said she went, again? I think you’d better give me all the details, the name, the address. She could still be out there. Maybe there’s more going on than you know about. You spoke to her how long ago?” He heard a sigh on the other end.
“She called me in the middle of the night. I think it was after one a.m., maybe closer to two?”
He dragged his gaze over to the clock on the stove. It was 11:20 a.m. He felt that off feeling he’d felt too many times. “Okay, and you haven’t seen her, and you know for sure she didn’t go into the office, even before you got there?”
“Look, she wasn’t here. I’m in at eight, but this morning I came in early, just after seven, because there’s always a lot to do when a kid is picked up the night before. Emergency placements are just that. Then there are the reports and the matter of finding something permanent. No one has any idea of the amount of paper and details that—”
“Okay, I get it,” he cut in, realizing Pam could quickly stray off into topics that weren’t helpful. “But right now, I’m trying to find out where Billy Jo is, so tell me who she went to see—the name, the address, and the reason she went out there. I’ll start there. As I said, maybe she’s still there.” He could hear rustling on the other end, maybe paper.
“She called me, as I said, between one and two. Said she got a call from the program supervisor to pick up a girl by the name of…” She paused. “Here it is. Her name is Whitney Chandler. No other details. Do you want the address?”
“Text it to me at this number.” He looked over to Lesley and Lorne and could see their worry.
“Okay, sending it to you now,” Pam said.
“All right. I’ll call you if there’s anything else,” he said, then hung up before Pam could add something. His phone dinged, and there was the address, another rural spot on the island, just what he loved.
“Should we be worried? Should we call her parents?” Lesley said.
Mark looked over to the couple and shook his head. “No sense worrying them. I’m sure wires were just crossed and Billy Jo is still at the home, is all. I’ll drive out there. Don’t worry. She’ll likely be back here soon. In case she shows up before I find her, though, give me a call.” He reached into the breast pocket of his jean jacket and pulled out a card, which he held out to Lorne, who took it.
“Sure, we’ll call, but if she is out there, let us know. Because now we’re worried,” Lesley added.
All Mark did was nod and glance down to the cat, who was now eating. He walked over to the door. “Oh, again, don’t call Chase and Rose McCabe. If I’ve learned anything, you’ll likely be jumping the gun, and then Billy Jo will have a worried father and mother on the next ferry over.”
The way they looked at each other, though, Mark had a feeling that as soon as he walked out the door, Lesley would be on the phone to Billy Jo’s parents.
There was one thing he knew well about Billy Jo: She loved her family, but she was about as private as they came, and having a bunch of people fussing and showing up worried about her was exactly what she wouldn’t want.
He strode down the stairs, seeing the dog hanging his head out the Jeep window as he started over toward it. This feeling he had, the one that settled deep in his gut, had him wondering whether he had become too close with Billy Jo, fast treading into that territory where he was beginning to care too much for her.
“Yeah, your judgement’s clouded. That’s all, Friessen. Pull your head out of your ass and do your job. Treat her like anyone else,” he said out loud as he yanked open the door.
But her image popped into his mind again, the last time he’d seen her, with that smile she never offered, the awkwardness that had become too real. He had never pictured her as the kind of girl who would eventually shred his heart.
“Hello?” Billy Jo yelled, pounding the metal wall, hearing it rattle. Very little light came into the room from the cracks in the walls as she kept pounding, with not a clue where she was.
What had happened after she woke up on the floor of this room in the dark? It was kind of fuzzy, but she knew there had been a gun, a man. She was in trouble.
“Hey, I know you’re out there! Open up! What do you want? Look, I’m not sure who you are, but I got a call to come out here and pick up Whitney Chandler, a young girl who’s in trouble. Is she out there? Hello?” she yelled again, banging with her fist. But no one was answering.
She was sweating in her heavy raincoat and track pants. She shrugged off her coat, but not before feeling the small flashlight with her extra keys in her pocket. She pulled it out and flicked it on before tossing her raincoat on the ground at her feet, taking in what looked like the inside of a metal cargo trailer. She knew cargo trailers, but she didn’t have any idea where she was. Where were her bag and her cell phone, which wasn’t charged?
“Idiot,” she muttered under her breath, remembering her car, the rain, and where she’d left her bag and phone the night before.
She shut her eyes for a second, thinking of the text she should have sent to Mark. But why would she do that when she was furious with him? And over what? Her ego, her own issues, because he’d found a way under her skin and gotten too close to her. Right now it seemed ridiculous, and she was already kicking herself. But then, she’d also told Pam where she was, and that program director, Lane, who’d said he was filling in for Grant. That didn’t exactly leave her with a warm and fuzzy feeling, though.
“Pam, please tell me you’ve got this handled, that you’ve figured out I’m in trouble and called in the cavalry.” Her words echoed in the empty trailer.
Where was she, exactly? She couldn’t remember anything past having the gun in her face and then waking up in this box. Why was there a big blank? She tapped her forehead with her fist as she struggled to remember.
She was hungry, and she needed to pee. She shone her flashlight around the box, empty except for her. She walked to the door and pushed on it, but of course it was locked, so she kicked it with her booted foot. The rattle was loud, and there was no give.
“Hey, knock it off in there!”
She heard the voice, the same male twang that had accompanied the gun in her face. She was positive it had to be the same voice. Right? Everything had gone into slow motion when she heard the click of the metal. She remembered the long pull of her breath, the icy fear that had scraped through her, seeing the barrel of the gun in her face.
The door unlocked with a heavy clang. A trailer for sure. She flicked off the flashlight and shoved it down the side of her bulky boot, then took one step back and another. Only one of the doors swung open, and there was a man with dark shoulder-length hair in need of a cut, with a beard. He was big, likely close to six feet, and something about the way he looked at her with those dark eyes reminded her of one of her foster parents, Mr. Humbolt, a man who’d loved his guns. Her father, Chase McCabe, had saved her from him. Maybe that was why her heart was hammering in her chest.
“What do you want with me? And where’s Whitney? Who the hell are you?” she demanded—and damn, did she sound confident even though she was shaking inside, fighting the instincts of a scared little girl, alone with no one to help her.
The man had big hands, and he gestured for her to move back. He rested a bucket in the corner and tossed a plastic bag on the floor.
“Look, I don’t know what this is, but let me out,” she said. “I’m Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. I don’t know what your problem is, but let me see Whitney. Is she all right? What do you want with me? And who are you?” She rested her hands on her hips mainly because she couldn’t stop them from shaking.
“You ask a lot of questions, and you’re making too much noise,” he said.
She couldn’t figure out what she was looking at behind him, seeing the sun coming through cracks in the wood wall. A barn or maybe a big shed? She didn’t know for sure.
“You haven’t answered me,” she said. “Who are you? Where’s Whitney? You know keeping me here isn’t going to work too well for you. You think people don’t know I’m here? My boss, the police…”
There was a smile, she thought. Then it was gone. He didn’t pull his gaze, and those eyes were freaking her out, because they held the kind of hate and anger she knew meant he wouldn’t be reasoned with.
“Oh, I’m counting on that,” he said. “But if you don’t quiet down, I’ll tie you up and gag you. Are we clear?”
What the hell was that supposed to mean?
He gestured to the bag. “Water and a sandwich.” Then he stepped back, his hand on the door. She knew he was about to shut it and lock it, so she hurried to it and slapped her hand on it.
“Wait! Who are you? What do you want with me?”
He stopped. The way he let his gaze linger on her had a shiver running through her. Anger, rage… He didn’t seem too inclined to answer her. He simply pulled the gun from the waistband of his jeans, at the small of his back, and flicked it at her. “Back,” he snapped, gesturing with it.
She lifted her hands and took a step, knowing as soon as that door closed, there would be no way out. “Please, why? Just answer me that.”
“You’re a means to an end.”
She wondered whether her confusion showed. “I don’t know who you are, but you know me?”
He was still holding that gun at her. His finger rested at the side of the trigger, holding it like a pro. “Oh, I know who you are, Billy Jo McCabe. Asked around, and it seems you’re as new to the island as Detective Friessen.”
She was never at a loss for words, but for a moment she felt as if she’d been pulled into a game without knowing any of the rules. “Okay, and you have an issue with me…?” She let it hang, very aware of that steel door that would close and lock any second.
He didn’t look away. “Didn’t say it was about you now, did I? Just that I know who you are. You know anything about hunting?”
That was exactly what she didn’t want to hear from someone holding a gun.
“Some. Why? What is this?”
“Then you know you have to track down your prey. You have to wait, and you have to be patient, knowing it takes as long as it’s going to take. Sometimes you need bait that will attract who you’re hunting. You’re my bait.”
He was serious. She realized his anger wasn’t for her: She was just collateral, staring into the eyes of a man who wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep if he pulled the trigger and shot her.
“This is about Detective Friessen?” she said, and the way the man kept staring at her, she knew she was right.
“We have unfinished business,” was all he said.
Her stomach knotted as she pictured a trap being set for a man she realized she cared far too much for. She needed to keep this guy talking.
“Well, then you have the wrong person. I’m just a social worker. I barely know him…”
He laughed and shook his head. “Really? You think I didn’t do my homework? I know exactly who Mark Friessen is close to on this island, which cabin he lives in, which dog he took in. You’re the one he cares for, whether as friends or something more. The talk in town is about the social worker and the cop and the fact that he’d do anything for you. A man doesn’t do that for a woman he barely knows. He does it for a woman he loves. I’d say that makes you the perfect bait.”
What the hell? How was this possible, a stranger knowing all this about her and Mark? Who was he?
“You still haven’t told me who you are. What’s your name? What are you planning on doing to the detective?”
“You ask a lot of questions. It doesn’t matter who I am. All that matters is I have you. The detective and I have some unfinished business, and I plan to make him look me in the eye, to hold him accountable. Retribution… I’ve waited a long time, and I’ll have it.”
So she was only a pawn. “What did he do?”
He shook his head. “I think the question is what he didn’t do.” He tucked the gun in his waistband and moved his hand to the door to shut it.
“There is no Whitney, is there?”
He made a face and shook his head. “Nope, not anymore.”
Mark took in the dirt driveway and overgrown grass, the rutted tire tracks, now dry after the heavy rain from the night before, as he pulled up in front of an old two-story house with the kind of clapboard siding that said it was more of an amateur project than something done by a builder. An old truck was parked in front, and the porch had three wide wooden steps, no railing, and wood that looked as if it had seen better days.
“You stay,” he said to the dog, who was already panting as the day warmed, his window down. The dog was the best companion he’d ever had.
He stepped out of his Jeep and closed the door, his hand resting on the open window frame. The windows of the house were single paned and dirty. An old sheet, he thought, hung in one. He turned his head, seeing trees, overgrown grass, and bushes, but he didn’t hear anything other than birds.
It was deserted and quiet. Too quiet.
He walked around the front of the Jeep and took in the old truck, which didn’t look as if it even ran, let alone had moved in a while. The side was rusty, the seat inside was torn, and one of the tires was flat. He patted it, and the sound echoed.
A breeze picked up, and he pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them in his shirtfront as he walked up the wooden steps, hearing each creak under his weight. He was sweating under his jean jacket. Something about this place left him with the kind of unsettled feeling that had him looking over his shoulder again.
He dragged his gaze back to the old wooden door, with no doorbell, scraped, dinged, and dirty, and he fisted his hand and knocked, then listened for anything as he waited. One, two… he counted in his head, then knocked again, louder. “Roche Harbor Police! Open up,” he called out.
If someone was in there, whoever it was would have heard him. At the same time, there was no sign of Billy Jo or her car. Was this the right place? Maybe the address was wrong.
He couldn’t shake that off feeling again. The hair on the back of his neck stood, and he turned around, narrowing his gaze, unable to shake the sense that someone was watching him. But all he saw were trees and bushes, nothing else.
“Hey!” he called out, expecting someone to come out of the bushes, but there was nothing except his dog hanging his head out the open window, panting, loyal and patient.
Mark turned back to the door, hearing nothing, and reached for the knob. It turned, but it was locked.
He strode down the steps, feeling his holstered gun at his side, and walked to the side of the house, looking up at the windows of the second story. Around back, the overgrown grass appeared undisturbed, as if no one had been back there. He took in the old back entry, a small boxlike porch, an old door, and dirty glass.
Behind him, what looked like junk had been tossed here and there. He fanned his hand over his eyes and looked up, then pulling his phone from his pocket and dialed Pam. Evidently, he was missing something.
“DCFS. Can I help you?”
“Pam, this is Mark. I’m at that address you gave me, but it appears to be some rundown old place with no one around. Billy Jo’s car isn’t here, either. You sure you gave me the right address? I need you to tell me again exactly what Billy Jo said when she called you.”
There was a pause on the other end before she rattled off the same address to him, and he nodded to himself with that sinking feeling.
“Your sure that’s the one she gave you?”
“Look, it may have been the middle of the night, but it’s the one she told me. I wrote it down. Maybe she gave the wrong address.”
There was something about this place that he didn’t like.
“Who called her, again?” he said. He could hear papers rustling in the background.
“The program supervisor. She said his name was Lorne—or Lane, I think? Shit, I know I wrote it down here somewhere…”
He waited and pulled his hand over the back of his neck, taking in the bushes, no longer feeling that odd sense of being watched.
“Okay, maybe I didn’t,” she said. “Just the program supervisor. I guess Grant must be away. I’ll call his office and find out who called her. Likely it’s just a matter of it being the wrong address or something, but that still doesn’t explain why she hasn’t called or shown up with Whitney…”
It was the “or something” he was worried about. The unease he hadn’t felt before was starting to sink in now. Maybe he should call her dad, her mom? Or maybe there was a simple explanation for all this.
“You know what?” he said. “Call whoever called her. Find out who it was, and I want to talk to him. What did you say the reason was? If a girl was in trouble, why weren’t we called? I have no report from last night. Don’t you think that’s rather odd?”
There was silence for a second on the other end. “I guess I never considered that, but the police aren’t always involved,” Pam said. “Evidently, I don’t have the whole story. Do you think something happened, on this island, in our community?”
He could hear the doubt—but what was she expecting him to say, that nothing could happen here? Of course it could, and it did. Most people had no idea what went on right next door, not really.
“Don’t start speculating,” he said. “One thing at a time. I want to talk to the program supervisor, and I need the details of the call, the correct address, and to know why we weren’t contacted. Better yet, send me the number of whoever called her, because I want to talk to him. I want all the details of what Billy Jo was sent into.”
“Yeah, of course,” Pam said before she hung up.
Mark thumbed through his phone and sent a quick text off to Carmen: Where are you?
Maybe she had an idea of what had happened, considering he hadn’t seen her that morning, which was in itself unusual.
Busy, handling something. What do you want? she texted back.
Okay, so she was her usual self.
Looking for Billy Jo. You haven’t heard from her, have you?
He waited for the three dots and watched them pop up as if she was texting something, but then there was nothing. He lifted his gaze again and looked around, seeing nothing but junk, and took a step to the window of what looked like a kitchen. He glanced back to his cell phone and saw the message: Nope.
That was it.
He shook his head, tucking his cell phone in the back pocket of his jeans, as he looked up to the kitchen window and then back to an old barrel and pallets leaning against the house. He dragged one under the window and rested his booted foot on it, testing it to see if it would give, then climbed up and pressed his hands against the wall.
He cupped his hand against the dirty window and peered in, seeing an empty old kitchen, paper and boxes on the floor, empty cupboard doors open. A pot sat on an old stove, dirty, dusty. The place was abandoned, maybe.
He jumped back down and pulled his phone from his pocket to send another text to Carmen. Can you pull up this address for me? Looks abandoned. Find out who owns it, who lives here, everything.
He waited for a response and got a thumbs up, then tucked his phone back in his pocket and strode back around the house. When he took in his Jeep, he froze. Something white fluttered under his wiper blade.
“What the hell…?”
He slapped his hand to his side, reaching for his gun as he stared at the fluttering paper, which hadn’t been there before. As he moved closer to the side of the house, looking around, that feeling of being watched was there again, making the hair stand on the back of his neck.
He pulled in a breath, feeling the pounding of his heart as he took one step and then another, staying close to the side of the house, his hands on his gun, tracking everything as he glanced around the corner. But there was nothing. He knelt to glance under his Jeep too, but there was nothing there, no feet or anyone.
He hurried over and reached for the paper someone had put there when he was behind the house. Someone was watching him.
He realized the dog hadn’t barked, and he glanced inside to find that he was gone.
When he flicked open the paper, he was met with black handwriting in big letters:
Payback is a bitch.
I’ve got someone you’re looking for.
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